Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A collection of movements and a pair of testicles

What makes a man a man? Luckily, we've had the answer to this question since 1998, when the Dude summed it up so nicely: It's being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost ... along with a pair of testicles.

But what makes a route a route? Can a climbing route be more than just a collection of movements over rock and ice, or is it exclusively the sum of its parts?

Well, I think that depends on the person who climbs it. After all, it's people who create routes. Without the individual's experience, a route would be nothing more than just a series of movements. But when you add the human element, a route can become so much more. Take for instance New Hampshire's classic alpine route, The Black Dike. After three winter climbing seasons, I finally had the opportunity to climb this route in late February. To me, this route was much more than just three pitches of moderate rock and ice climbing in a stark alpine environment.
Black Dike in condition, February 2012
(photo taken from mountainproject.com)

It was a history teacher: Did you know that, as a teenager with only two years of climbing experience, New Hampshire local John Bouchard made the first ascent in 1971? He climbed solo, and in the process broke a pick, lost a glove, and got benighted in a storm. This was merely a year after Yvon Chouinard himself called the route "the last great plum in the east."

It was a climbing barometer: As I mentioned, it took me three winter seasons to get the "opportunity" to climb this line. But perhaps that's a bit misleading. It's not like there was anyone sitting in the parking lot at Canon Cliff, checking my credentials. I could have easily walked through the beech trees and up the snowy talus field to the base of the route at any time during those three seasons. But I wasn't ready until this year. Sure, I pretended I was. Whenever Dan and Mark and I would trek up to the Granite State for a weekend of climbing, we would joke about how the weather or an early flight were keeping us off the route. But the truth is, I could have worked it out if I really was psyched to climb it. I wasn't psyched because I didn't feel ready. Despite it's oft-listed grade (WI 5, M4), the route itself is actually quite moderate, at least in the conditions I climbed it. But I've heard that it was given this grade because, depending upon weather and route conditions, it has the potential to be quite serious. After three seasons of winter climbing, I finally felt equal to the task.

It was the terrain on which a new friendship and partnership were formed: I climbed the Dike with a guy I had met only a few months prior on a group climbing trip. Before this weekend, I had never actually roped up with him. Without this trip, I'm sure we would have become friends at some point anyway -- he's a good climber and a great guy. But sharing the experience of a classic alpine climb like the Black Dike is a damn good shortcut.

It was the realization of a personal goal: The Dike was in my head. I had built it up over the three previous winters as a burly line with fickle conditions. I knew it would be good, but I also feared it, even though I've climbed many routes that are technically more difficult. Not only was it a skill barometer, it was also something that I felt I needed to do. There was a part of me that wouldn't have been content with any climbing career that didn't include an ascent of the Black Dike. It didn't disappoint.

So, my answer is yes. A route can be more than just a collection of moves. It can mean something to people. A person can actually care about a route and feel an emotional attachment to it. You can be disappointed by a route or pleasantly surprised. You can fear a route, or feel like you've got its number. Some routes, like Rainbow Wall or Rock Warrior, can take on even greater meaning if you bail on them. Hell, sometimes a route can even arouse you (Venturi Effect, anyone?). For me, the Black Dike epitomizes this phenomenon of route personification. It isn't the hardest route I've done, or the boldest, or the longest. But it has character. It's like an old, whiskey-drinking friend. You're not certain exactly how much you can trust it, but you're pretty sure you want it in your life. Bravo, John Bouchard.


  1. Glad you finally grew a pair and climbed that bitch! J/K - great work, man. Congrats!....Pictures?

  2. Sorry, no pics. This climb was only for me. ;)